Carla Marinucci, Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Political Writers
San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday, August 14, 2010

Robert Rizzo has been dubbed the “Willie Horton” of overpaid public employees for his $1.5 million-a-year salary and benefit package to run the small Los Angeles County town of Bell. Now political campaigns are trying to cash in on the ensuing public outrage.

State Attorney General Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor, has announced a joint investigation with Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, a Republican candidate for attorney general. They’re looking into possible civil and criminal violations among Rizzo’s team of well-paid cohorts in Bell, where the police chief earned $457,000 a year – more than the president of the United States.

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer and Controller John Chiang, both Democrats running for re-election, also have announced probes, while state lawmakers are rushing to write bills designed to curb abuse and open the records of public employee salaries.

Uproar over government excess in Bell, where roughly a quarter of the population lives in poverty, has become a hot-button issue in California’s nationally watched governor’s race. But in some cases, political attacks linked to the scandal are more hype than truth – just as they might have been with Horton, a furloughed felon cited by critics of Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988.

Republican Meg Whitman’s campaign has seized on the issue to launch salvos at Brown – not only suggesting that the state’s top cop failed in recent years to detect abuse in Bell but also questioning his leadership as the two-term mayor of Oakland, one of California’s biggest cities.

“Before there was Bell, there was Oakland,” says the announcer in a recent Whitman ad, which claims Oakland employees were overpaid – and even paid for not working – when Brown was mayor from 1999 to 2007.

“Bell has become a battle cry for hardworking Californians who feel like they’re overtaxed in order to line the paychecks and pensions of some individuals in civil service who are obviously overpaid,” a pattern that was echoed in Oakland, Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds said.
Shot from the other side

Brown’s campaign denied that claim.

Whitman “couldn’t find her way to a ballot box for 28 years,” said Brown campaign spokesman Sterling Clifford, referring to her spotty voting record. “We’ll add that to the list of California governance that she doesn’t understand.”

The attorney general is investigating Bell because of questions regarding “elements of election fraud, abuse of law enforcement powers and corruption on a scale that defies comparison,” he said.

Several analysts familiar with the Oakland pay and pensions issue were divided over whether Whitman’s claims about Brown are factual and how much responsibility he should bear for benefits and salary contracts for city employees in Oakland.

While “politically, it’s a canny move” to try to tie employee pay during Brown’s time to the financial problems in Bell, the comparison ends there, said Jessica Levinson, director of political reform at the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies.

Oakland doesn’t have “the kind of extravagant salaries and compensation that Bell does,” Levinson said.
Preceding Brown’s term

Rules for the compensation Oakland employees receive “were in place long before Jerry Brown came into office,” said Alton Jelks, who served as a deputy city auditor, a nonpartisan position, in Oakland from 1998 to 2002, during Brown’s first years in office.

As mayor, Brown declined to accept the annual cost-of-living increases to his annual salary of $115,000. One month after entering office, Brown’s successor, current Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, accepted a 60 percent raise, to $184,000 a year. At the time, Oakland City Council members earned approximately one-third of that.

Michael Semler, a professor of political science at Sacramento State University, said Brown was hamstrung by agreements already in place for police, firefighter and other city employees’ salary and benefits when he came to office.

“The dilemma is that a contract, under the U.S. Constitution, is really difficult to break,” he said. In many cities – including in Bell – civil compensation is “determined by the voters, and unions in California have negotiated packages.”
‘A historical problem’

“So this is a historical problem for municipal governments across California and across the country,” Semler said. “The reason these things become egregious is because a benefits package is not due and payable until many years after the deal is negotiated.”

But analysts say Brown, as the city’s chief executive, must take some responsibility for a controversial and costly appointment that underscored the city’s financial troubles.

Brown appointed Deborah Edgerly in 2004 to be city administrator after the departure of her well-respected predecessor, Robert Bobb. She left the job under a cloud four years later after The Chronicle reported widespread concerns about the practices of a woman who was called Oakland’s “ultimate hiring authority.”

An independent 2007 audit to examine Edgerly’s practices found the city failed to stop mismanagement that included granting hundreds of thousands of dollars more in management leaves than city rules allowed. The audit does not directly criticize Brown.

Semler said “there is a legitimate question that (Brown) is responsible for the performance of the city manger, indirectly, and for the city operations.” But he added that “long-term systemic problems that exist cannot be laid at the foot of one individual.”

Some pension experts said Brown had a key role in Oakland’s shaky long-term financial health – including its pension liabilities.
Pension danger zone

Marcia Fritz, vice president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, which advocates pension reform, said Oakland is in the danger zone among major California cities with regard to its ability to pay its pension liabilities.

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